Dir: Rob Minkoff. US. 2003. 98 mins.
Disney's latest attempt to turn a theme park attraction into a movie relies on impressive design and effects work and a warmly funny performance from Eddie Murphy to pep up an otherwise rather anaemic ghosts'n'ghouls family comedy adventure. The selling points may well prove strong enough in the US to give Disney its first Thanksgiving number one in three years (the company practically owned the holiday weekend before the arrival of the Harry Potter films). The final gross is likely to fall near the middle of the range covered by the studio's first two theme park spin-offs, last year's flop The Country Bears and this summer's smash Pirates Of The Caribbean. Winning over audiences outside the US (where rollout begins in the New Year) will be harder, given lesser familiarity with the Haunted Mansion ride and Murphy's recently diminished international pulling power.
The ride has been part of California's Disneyland park for 30 years and variations on it are among the attractions at Disney's parks in Florida and Paris. The team bringing the ride to the screen includes some of the studio's crack animation talents, among them producer Don Hahn (The Lion King, Beauty And The Beast) and director Rob Minkoff (who made The Lion King before directing both Stuart Little films for Sony). Screenwriter David Berenbaum, meanwhile, is currently enjoying the success of his feature debut Elf.
Berenbaum's script casts Murphy as workaholic real estate broker Jim Evers. Jim's visit, with his wife (Thomason) and teenage kids (Jefferies and Davis), to an isolated up-for-sale New Orleans mansion turns out to be part of a macabre scheme hatched by Ramsley (Stamp), sinister butler to the mansion's owner, the dashing and mysterious Master Gracey (Parker).
The story has its intrigues and, in true Disney tradition, its family-friendly morals, but it still feels like a half-hearted attempt to make this more than just the-movie-of-the-ride. Its main function is to lead the film through the mansion's warren of rooms and corridors and introduce the myriad spirits that have inhabited them for the past century.
The tour is made worth taking by the elaborate and imaginative work of production designer John Myhre (last year's Oscar winner for Chicago) and his team. Myhre gives the mansion a creepy Southern Gothic exterior and decorates the interior in warm muted colours that keep the mood spooky but not too scary for younger kids. Stops on the tour include a ballroom filled with ghostly
dancers, the haunt of disembodied clairvoyant Madame Leota (Tilly) and a backyard cemetery populated by whimsical spirits and a barbershop quartet of singing stone busts.
The work of visual effects supervisor Jay Redd (Stuart Little) and make-up maestro Rick Baker (Men In Black) is also top notch. Using both CGI and physical effects techniques they give the film's ghosts an impressive variety of looks. Particularly effective are the skeletal ghouls that Jim and his daughter encounter in the PG film's scariest sequence.
Murphy handles most of the film's straightforwardly comic moments. He's in fine form as the good natured but ambitious Jim and the script gives him more to work with than he had in his summer success Daddy Day Care. British actress Thomason (from UK TV series Playing the Field) is quite engaging and child actors Jefferies and Davis both show promise. Stamp, though, never seems comfortable in a role that might, had it been more developed, have provided the film with a really hissable villain.
Prod co: Walt Disney Pictures
W'wide dist: Buena Vista Pictures
Prods: Don Hahn, Andrew Gunn
Exec prods: Barry Bernardi, Rob Minkoff
Scr: David Berenbaum
Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin
Prod des: John Myhre
Ed: Priscilla Nedd Friendly
Costume des: Mona May
Visual effects supervisor: Jay Redd
Special make-up effects: Rick Baker
Music: Mark Mancina
Main cast: Eddie Murphy, Terence Stamp, Nathaniel Parker, Marsha Thomason, Jennifer Tilly, Wallace Shawn, Dina Waters, Marc John Jefferies